An HE:plus hors d’oeuvre, posted on 1.17.19: I’ve been a mildly angry guy most of my life. Contrarian, questioning authority, a pushback instinct. Born of my father’s alcoholism, aloofness and general disdain. Over the last 25 years of journalistic endeavor it’s been slipping out by way of the “three sees” — cerebral, channelled, controlled. But in my late teens the anger was more eruptive and hair-triggerish, and one day in a high-school hallway it almost ruined my life. Except it didn’t, thank God.
I’be forgotten some of the particulars but I know that The Incident happened late in the school year, perhaps in early May. The senior graduation ceremony was just around the corner. Tension had been brewing between myself and Wilton High School’s vice-principal, a somewhat brittle-mannered guy in his mid 40s. He had cold gray eyes and a silvery flattop, and I remember thinking time and again that he was an officious prick. Not my kind of guy.
I recall that we were standing in a hallway near the school offices and the main doors, and that he was accusing me of something or other. Or admonishing me for some failing. I gave him the requisite amount of lip and attitude and he reacted angrily, and then grabbed me by the arm in order to walk me down to the detention room or off the premises or whatever. A stern show of disciplinary force.
That’s when I lost it. Rather than be led away I shoved him, hard. He staggered for a step or two and said “whoa!”, and looked at me with shock and surprise. His eyes said “did you just do that?” That’s exactly what I was asking myself at the moment. It was like my angry no-good brother had pushed him and not me. But it was me, all right — me and my stored-up rage.
I was immediately suspended and ordered to leave the school. I took stock of things as I walked home. My fear was that I wouldn’t be allowed to graduate. It was understood that striking any teacher or authority figure would result in automatic expulsion. When I got home I told my mother what had happened, and of course she moaned and said “oh, Jeffrey…why do you do these things?”
Words can’t express the nihilism I felt that day, and the day that followed. I was afraid that I might have to return the following year and endure the same awful classes all over again.
But mercy and charity intervened. The vice-principal decided to cut me a break and allow me to return after two days of suspension. I remember feeling almost stunned by this act of Christian compassion. I was totally guilty but he let me slide. When I came back I didn’t have the character to look him in the eye and shake his hand and say “thank you for saving my life.” I’m sorry that I failed in this regard, but I’ve never forgotten his decency.